WASHINGTON -- A Democratic congressman sent a letter Tuesday that reveals how the Obama administration denied his requests to view closely held U.S. trade deals.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett's (D-Texas) letter, sent to U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman and obtained by The Huffington Post, provides insight into an ongoing transparency debate about the Obama administration's trade agreements. President Barack Obama is pushing for Congress to give him the authority to "fast-track" international trade deals without the opportunity for lawmakers to submit amendments.
According to the letter, a USTR staffer told Doggett's chief of staff over the phone that the congressman would not be permitted to view an unredacted copy of the trade texts. However, the staffer did say that Doggett could take notes, which members of Congress had reportedly been forbidden from doing previously.
The letter also claimed that USTR denied requests from Doggett to review the texts privately, to bring along his chief of staff (who has a top secret security clearance) and to see text showing the positions of involved countries on unresolved issues. In addition, USTR reportedly told Doggett that it was unclear whether the office could provide documents about how the U.S. position has changed on contentious issues like food safety and intellectual property.
Doggett, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, is asking Froman to provide a written confirmation that the denials his staff received over the phone are official USTR positions.
The congressman has previously raised concerns about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: Earlier this month, he accused the Obama administration of dodging his requests for greater transparency about the agreements.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for USTR, told HuffPost that "we have repeatedly interacted with Congressman Doggett's office regarding his requests." He added, "We make TPP texts available to any Member interested in reviewing them, which includes U.S. proposals as well as the proposals tabled by the other countries.”
On Thursday, despite the restrictions, Doggett went to view the TPP texts along with three other members of Congress who are also critical of fast-track authority. He told HuffPost in a Friday interview that he didn't see why the texts needed to have so many security restrictions, adding, "I'm not sure exactly what and why it is that USTR needs to hide this information."
To some extent, TPP texts are treated as a state secret, although U.S. negotiating proposals are available for view by unions, corporate lobbyists, nonprofits and other advisers.
The Obama administration claims it has taken "unprecedented steps" to make American trade policy more transparent, including soliciting public comments and holding public hearings. Bates said that USTR has held over 1,600 briefings for members of Congress on TPP alone, and added that "we have made clear that we are happy to schedule additional times, at [Doggett's] convenience, for further reviews."
Doggett has nonetheless continued to raise his concerns among the Democratic caucus. On Friday, he wrote a "dear colleague" letter that reads, "We need a synergy of Members, who are knowledgeable about particular subjects, and full access to what is proposed in order to cast an intelligent vote."